Mortimer Wheeler

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Mortimer Wheeler bigraphy, stories - British archaeologist

Mortimer Wheeler : biography

10 September 1890 – 22 July 1976

Brigadier Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler CH, CIE, MC, TD, FBA, FSA (10 September 1890 – 22 July 1976) was a British archaeologist.

After service in the Royal Artillery in the First World War, he undertook excavations in Wales, England, and Northern France as Director of the National Museum of Wales and Keeper of the London Museum with his first wife, Tessa Wheeler, an accomplished field archaeologist in her own right. They were early advocates of a more scientific approach to excavation and the recording of stratigraphic context, following in the footsteps of Lieutenant General Augustus Pitt Rivers. After further service in the Second World War, he was Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India. His appearances on television and radio and popular books, particularly Animal, Vegetable, Mineral helped to bring archaeology to a mass audience.

Early career

Wheeler returned to the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments in 1919, but took up a new position as Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum of Wales in August 1920. He also became a lecturer in archaeology at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire in Cardiff. He was Director of the National Museum of Wales from 1924 to 1926. With his wife Tessa – an accomplished field archeologist in her own right – they excavated Welsh sites including Segontium, Gaer and Caerleon. He moved to London in 1926 to become Keeper of the London Museum, remaining in this position until 1944. During this period, the Wheelers performed many major excavations within Britain, including that of the Roman villa at Lydney Park, Roman Verulamium (modern-day St Albans), and the late Iron Age hill-fort of Maiden Castle, Dorset. They worked together on establishing an Archaeological Institute in London, which was founded in 1934.

The excavation methods they used, for example the grid system (later developed further by Kathleen Kenyon and known as the Wheeler-Kenyon method), were significant advances in archaeological method, although later superseded. They were influenced greatly by the work of the archaeologist Lieutenant General Augustus Pitt Rivers (1827–1900). The two constant themes in their attempts to improve archaeological excavation were, first, to maintain strict stratigraphic control while excavating (for this purpose, the baulks between trenches served to retain a record of the strata that had been dug through), and, second, to publish the excavation promptly and in a form that would tell the story of the site to the intelligent reader such as in articles in the Illustrated London News, where he employed the services of the noted artist Alan Sorrell. They also published their results quickly after the excavations concluded, and Mortimer proved adept at generating favourable publicity.

Works

  • Segontium and the Roman Occupation of Wales (1923)
  • Prehistoric and Roman Wales (1925)
  • The Roman Fort Near Brecon (1926)
  • Report on the excavations of the prehistoric, Roman and post-Roman site in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire (1932)
  • Verulamium: a Belgic and Two Roman Cities (1936)
  • The excavation of Maiden Castle, Dorset : second interim report (1936)
  • Maiden Castle, Dorset (1943)
  • Five thousand years of Pakistan; an archaeological outline (1950)
  • Cambridge History of India: The Indus Civilization (1953)
  • Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London No.XVII: The Stanwick Fortifications, North Riding of Yorkshire (1954)
  • Archaeology from the Earth (1954)
  • Still Digging (memoir) (1955)
  • Hillforts of Northern France (1957)
  • Charsada: a Metropolis of the North-West Frontier’ (1962)
  • Roman art and architecture (1964)
  • Alms for Oblivion (memoir) (1966)
  • Civilizations of the Indus Valley and beyond (1966)
  • Early India and Pakistan: to Ashoka (1970)
  • My Archaeological Mission to India and Pakistan (memoir) 1976